Strade Bianche 2017 Preview

By David Hunter

Siena – Siena 175km

A familiar route for this epic race. Not an exact copy of 2016, but close enough.

This is the tenth anniversary of the race and it has fast become a favourite of many fans. It is certainly a modern day classic. No major climbs, but the white roads make up for that. This year we will have eleven gravel sectors, covering 62km, usually 8, 9, 10 and 11 are the most important. The others come a little early in the race to have an impact.

Tactics

We’ve seen the same type of race over the last few years. A much reduced peloton reaches sector 9/10 together and then an attack takes a small group clear. This group reach the climb back into Siena together, before fighting it out on the double digit slopes.

Having a strong team certainly helps, but there is no substitute for simply being very strong. The last three winners are Michal Kwiatkowski, Zdenek Stybar and Fabian Cancellara. All three riders are fast and explosive climbers.

Crucial Sectors

8. Monte Sante Marie – at 11.5km long, this is a real test of bike handling skills. It comes with a long way still to go and doesn’t feature any huge climbs. Usually it does seriously slim down the peloton and starts the finale of the race.

9. Monteaperti – only 800m long, but does include a steep little climb. Sagan and Kwiatkowski disappeared up the road here in 2014.

10. Colle Pinzuto – this 2.4km of white road includes 500m at 10%. This is a perfect point to attack and is where the crucial move went last year.

11. Le Tolfe – the last sector. The 1.1km sector includes a steep descent, before 500m at 11.4%. This is a brutal end to the gravel roads. Those on the limit can pop!

Finale

The final kilometre rises at around 10%, as the road goes up to Piazza del Campo. The fans are very close to the action, making it a spine tingling end to the race. The sprint finish is quite unique, due to the narrowness of the road. Get in front for the final turn and you win the race.

Contenders

Peter Sagan – just how strong is Sagan!? He was amazing last weekend, only a tactical mistake stopped him from winning both races. He returns to Strade Bianche, a race he’s competed in for the last 5 years. It seems quite amazing that he’s never won here, finishing 2nd on two occasions. His downfall is always the final climb back into Siena, something that does come as a surprise. Sagan seems to lack the explosive power on the climb that others posses. Maybe this year he tries to drop everyone before that point.

Greg Van Avermaet – another that has started the season in impressive fashion. Just like Sagan, he likes this race, but is yet to win it. The Belgian has competed here in 6 out of the last 7 seasons, never finishing worse than 13th. That is quite a record. Like Sagan, he does seem to lack a little on the final climb. It will be fascinating to see how both riders attack the race.

Zdenek Stybar – won in 2015 and was just pipped by Cancellara in 2016. The Czech star is brilliant on the gravel roads, thanks to his cyclo-cross experience. He does have the extra zip needed for the final climb and he will be confident of beating Sagan and Van Avermaet, not something anyone can say very often! Quick-Step have a tremendous team to back him up, especially Brambilla and Vakoc. Both riders have a great chance of finishing in the top 10.

Diego Rosa – even back in his Androni days, the Italian looked good in this race. When riding for Astana, he finished 5th here in 2015. Now at Team Sky, he will form a strong partnership with the former winner, Michal Kwiatkowski. Rosa started the season well in Andalucia, finishing 5th and looking good in the hills. He would love a good performance on home soil.

Michal Kwiatkowski – the former winner has already shown a glimpse of his old self in Volta ao Algarve. It was really good to see him back at the top level, although he would have won that race a few years ago. We shall see if his form will get even better as the season develops, or if he slips back into old ways. He was brilliant when he won this race in 2014. Can he get back to that level?

Fabio Felline – another rider that has started the season in fine form. He won Laigueglia, before riding for Contador in Ruta del Sol. He then backed that up with a hugely impressive 4th place in Omloop, a sign that he has amazing legs just now. Last time he was here, he finished 8th in 2015. He will certainly be confident of bettering that result.

Primoz Roglic – was amazing in Algarve, easily taking the overall win. It marked a huge step forward in his career and also helped to secure a new contract with Jumbo. Roglic is clearly intent on stepping up to the very top level and had a strong winter. He made his debut here in 2016, finishing way down in 74th place. He is now a different rider and has a chance of winning this race.

Tiesj Benoot – was very strong in Kuurne, after a crash ruined his chances in Omloop. He made his debut here in 2016 and took a very impressive 8th place. The Belgian is class, a star in the making. He loves this race and has the kick required to take the win. He will hope that a group of 10 approach the finish together, he would have a great chance of taking the win, in that scenario.

Tim Wellens – so many riders have started the season well, maybe none better than Wellens. He took two wins in Mallorca and one in Andalucia, only a crash stopped him from taking two wins in Andalucia too. Now 25, Wellens is developing into a real star of the sport, one that is able of taking wins at seeming ease. This is his debut in the race, but that doesn’t mean he can’t challenge for the win.

Sep Vanmarcke – the big Belgian was very good here in 2015, finishing in 4th place. There is an awful lot of climbing in the race for a man of his size, but the lack of a “big” hill is great news for the classics expert. He will find that final rise to the line a bit hard, so needs to attack from further out. His performance in Omloop shows that he already has the form to do well here.

Thibaut Pinot – so pleased to see him attempting Strade. This race really is a crossover event, one that interests puncheurs and climbers. His stage win in Andalucía was stunning, not many beat a flying Contador. This is his debut in the race, but I expect him to do well.

Here is my video preview with Matej Mohoric https://youtu.be/-WlEqDrv1EE

Weather

The forecast is changing daily. It is currently saying that we might get rain on Saturday. If it’s wet, the race will be epic!

Prediction Time

The winner here in the last three years has always shown good form in the early season races, I think this trend will continue. Already taking wins in 2017 are:- Wellens, Felline, Roglic, Van Avermaet, Pinot and Sagan. You would imagine it would be difficult for a rider to win this race on debut, but not impossible.

Where does Stybar fit into this? His form is not at the level it was when he won this race, but given his love of the dirt, it’s hard to imagine him not fighting it out for the win. Purely based on form, I don’t think he wins this race.

Van Avermaet, Sagan, Felline and Roglic could all be fighting it out for the title, but even with his lack of experience here, I must include Wellens in this list. His form in 2017 has been nothing short of sensational. Out of my initial six riders, I’ve only managed to discount Pinot!

Sagan clearly has great form, but how will he try and win the race? We’ve seen him lose on the final climb in two editions, it must be time for him to try something else. I think we’ll see the world champion attacking on sector 9, hoping to go solo. Attacking early would be a good plan, but I would expect to see Tim Wellens already up the road by that time. It will be up to the others to see if they can go with Sagan and Wellens.

With so many strong riders, I see a group of 5 or so come to Siena together. The rider I think has the fastest punch up the climb is Fabio Felline. He looks very impressive just now and I think we’ll see Trek retain the title.

David Hunter

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